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Advice to Hardware Startups

Avoid risk in making your new product.

Advice to Hardware StartupsAt the beginning of each new project, we spend a lot of time understanding the context of the design to identify the important tradeoffs and parameters.  This helps us to understand the possibilities and best solution for each problem.  Sometimes our advice is not limited to design issues like power, size, wireless, or screens, but often includes:

  1. Understand your market
  2. Feasibility studies can help you reduce risk and understand your cost
  3. Build it so it can be manufactured
  4. Good design can save you big bucks in manufacturing
  5. Understand the right place to manufacture


1. Understand your market

Understanding your market means understanding your customers, their current and upcoming problems, why they want your product, how much they will pay for your solution, and your competition, what features are important and unimportant.  Lean Startup gives a good framework for exploring your market.  For more information and a good introduction, read Lean Innovation 101 here.

While we can follow lean and agile methodology, there is a word of caution especially with hardware sprints.  While it can lead to good results pretty quickly, the real challenge is to track cost.  Even though you can finish a sprint, it doesn’t mean you have finished a certain percent of the project, which can be very difficult for startups with limited budgets. If the scope changes and we’ve missed it, then that is a problem.

A good reference to check out is Understanding Your Target Market.

2. Feasibility studies can help you reduce risk and understand your cost

With any startup, I first get some basic understanding of where they are and where they’re going and what they have so far. Then I try to understand where the risks are and the missing things. Many times projects that come to us have never been done before. They may be a great idea but it’s not certain it can be done. So I will suggest doing some simple preliminary work, feasibility work to show it can be done.  This work is done quickly and at low cost.  Just enough is done to prove the approach.  We sometimes literally use duct tape to attach things together quickly. At the end of this preliminary work, we can project the cost of the project, the schedule, and the remaining risks.

The feasibility stage is a short investigation to determine how the design should best be done. We can provide a solid feasibility assessment that will cut your time to market, identify key risks and save budget. We can help you develop or fine-tune your Marketing Requirements Document (MRD) and Product Requirements Document (PRD), select critical components, and build working models of critical portions of the device. During feasibility studies, we identify and scope out the development risks in the project and develop solutions to meet business needs. For more detail on the design stages see “How to Get Your Product Made: Idea to Product.”

3. Build it so it can be manufactured

Design for manufacturability is the process of designing products to optimize all the manufacturing functions: fabrication, assembly, test, procurement, shipping, delivery, service, and repair. Design tradeoffs assure the best cost, quality, reliability, regulatory compliance, safety, time-to-market, and customer satisfaction.

For example, will code be loaded onto the board?  At what point in the manufacturing process will this happen?  Can it be done at the same time as testing to avoid a second operation with more handling, which is expensive? Will the device need to be calibrated?  Should this be done before testing or after?  Can the calibration be done at the same time as testing to avoid an additional operation with more handling? For more information about testing and transferring a design to manufacturing see “Common Errors Transferring Products to Test.”

4. Good design can save you big bucks in production

Good design goes beyond designing for manufacturability. Since design is about tradeoffs, we understand the impact of those tradeoffs on cost, size, and manufacturability. Optimal part selection determines about 80% of product cost while the concept/architecture phase alone determines 60% of cost! Voler provides strategic insight and careful design rigor through prototyping and evaluation of the component selection process. We consider chip maturity, availability, manufacturability, features and pricing when selecting components. Our careful design results in huge increased savings for our customers. We catch problems before they cause high-cost revisions and delays in manufacturing. Quality design can avoid manufacturing problems and save the entire cost of our services for a high volume part. Read more detail about component selection in our article “Voler Provides Risk Management For Leading Edge Components.”

5. Understand the right place to manufacture

The decision about where to manufacturing is not simply about cost, but volume, stage of development, flexibility needed, and intellectual property issues.  Often we see startups do prototype and small quantity runs locally to provide the most flexibility and then later move off-shore as the volumes and cost require. The best way to locate manufacturers is through referrals. We have close relationships with many manufacturers, but we also have partners who help with the transfer to manufacturing and know many manufacturers around the world.

As we start new projects, we spend a lot of time trying to understand “What is the best way to solve this problem?” It’s not how to design your product. It’s, “Here’s the problem and what parameters are important and what things are possible?”  Because we are completely committed to their success, startup founders find our approach and advice very valuable, which builds long-lasting relationships.

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Voler is really good at identifying risks and finding the best way to do a project on-time, on spec, and easy to manufacture.